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No longer grey and obedient shadows

· ​Women religious, a strong point to recognize ·

If we look carefully at the Church’s various experiences in the world today we are struck by the fact that in the most diverse sectors (culture, pastoral, law, missions, evangelization), the most innovative contributions, those which have met with the greatest success, come from women, and not just from any women but from women religious. Yes, precisely those women religious who – viewed from the Holy See or from the central institutions of the local Churches – seem to be merely grey and obedient shadows, content with their modest and forgotten roles.

Photograph by Sebastiana Papa on religious life from the book “Le Repubbliche delle Donne”(Rome, postcart/Occd 2013, 460 pages)

But if we raise our eyes and observe what is happening, we discover that women religious, who still form the vast majority of consecrated people, have changed a lot: the reality is that, full of projects and life, they constitute for the Church a fundamental strong point, a treasure, into which, however, the hierarchies never delve. The headquarters of the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) of the world’s main institutes of active life, for example, are located directly opposite the Vatican. If one passes through that door, one does not encounter any modest and bureaucratic atmosphere, but rather life, initiatives, a global outreach and a look to the future. But the President and the executive staff are never consulted by the governing bodies of the Church, as if they had nothing to say. Yet listening to them would certainly not be a revolutionary decision: The uisg has existed for decades, it has sound experience in various fields, it has a profound knowledge of the situation of Catholics in the world and is teeming with ideas and new experiences of evangelization.

One can’t help spontaneously wondering how come, in a context in which many different efforts are being made to give the Church a synodal face, no one ever thought of involving the representatives of this and other world associations of women religious in the meetings: might not their voices in the meetings of the Council of Cardinals set up by the Pope a month after his election perhaps be necessary? And might it not be indispensable to provide for their active participation in the general congregations which precede and prepare for a conclave?

Similarly, could the Bishops’ Conferences of various countries not involve the congregations of sisters committed beside them, listen to them and eventually evaluate their proposals? Would it not be prudent and useful to involve them in the discernment that precedes every promotion of a priest in the Church?

Photograph by Sebastiana Papa on religious life from the book “Le Repubbliche delle Donne”(Rome, postcart/Occd 2013, 460 pages)

Anyone can see that in the decision-making moments of the Church’s life there is no provision for women – and above all for women religious – they are not listened to and the Church proceeds as if they didn’t exist, as if women, together with men, had not constructed the Christian tradition for millennia.

If we really want to strike a blow at clericalism it is necessary to begin here, with women religious, and not so much as individual people – something that obviously can also happen, but only in cases where the individual possesses specific skills – but rather above all in the collective form of already existing associations.

For inserting some woman into dicasteries here and there, a woman who is usually isolated and chosen from among the most obedient, changes nothing. She is merely a fig leaf, which symbolically means something but in actual fact continues to have little importance. If we consider that in the Congregation for Religious too – despite the fact that women account for almost two thirds of the overall number of religious – there is only one woman Undersecretary, obviously dominated by all the priest directors insofar as she manages to make her voice heard, we realize that women religious are never listened to in their overall reality, through people they have elected.

The decision to involve the existing associations of women religious – whose directors are elected democratically – is the only way to avoid the obvious risk of paternalism towards them.

Photograph by Sebastiana Papa on religious life from the book “Le Repubbliche delle Donne”(Rome, postcart/Occd 2013, 460 pages)

Of course this proposal clashes with a deeply rooted prejudice: that listening to women religious is not in the least interesting, that women religious think of nothing at all, deprived as they are of culture and dedicated to menial work (almost always in the service of priests). I have even heard a Vatican director call sisters “blockheads” in order to underline the poverty of their intellect. In this regard of course examples are not lacking: the many sisters who work ceaselessly with tasks of various kinds of service in the Vatican must behave submissively, they must accept that if their intellectual work is good it is attributed to the superior on duty and must essentially cease to appear as individual personalities. “They prefer it to be like that”, I am often told....

It is as if self-sacrifice was the only way to live the religious vocation, as if this was the only coin of exchange at the disposal of the female congregations to obtain something that they need, as if people wanted to close their eyes to reality: the sacrifice of women is used solely to strengthen the power of those who already hold it.

Lucetta Scaraffia




St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 20, 2019